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Jimmy Carter, the pilgrim-president

A miracle worker? A meddler? A righteous, naive moralizer? Jimmy Carter was accused of all, and he didn't seem to care.

by Flora Lewis

When Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 after one term as president of the United States, he was not popular with Americans. Since then, more and more of his compatriots have come to say, "Carter is the best ex-President we've ever had."  He had chosen neither to retire in sour resentment at the electorate's ingratitude nor in fading but leisurely eminence, but to dedicate himself with undiminished energy to the causes that grip him. They cover a broad spectrum, and usually he pursues them quietly. But now and then there are spectacular, news-making bursts.

His trips to North Korea, to Haiti and to Bosnia in rapid succession in 1994 were so startling that cartoonists were inspired to draw a desolate, hopeless war scene or even a furiously quarreling husband and wife over a caption that said some version of "Send for Jimmy Carter." A miracle worker? A meddler? A righteous, naive moralizer? He was accused of all, and he didn't seem to care.

In those three mediations, he brought spectacular results in one case Haiti where he persuaded the governing military junta to depart peacefully, permitting the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to return under protection of an American invasion force without a shot being fired. In North Korea, he also defused an imminent threat of war, on terms acceptable to the U.S. government but criticized by its domestic opponents as giving insufficient guarantees that Pyongyang was abandoning its ambition to build nuclear weapons, the issue of the crisis. In Bosnia, he achieved no more than a tenuous four-month cease-fire, less than fully observed but still bringing more respite than dozens of previous cease-fires and providing breathing space for more negotiations which may or may not get anywhere. This is a mixed score, but in all cases lives, perhaps a great many lives, were saved. Problems were left, of course, but he had achieved the purpose of giving peace a chance.

Mr. Carter has been embarking on such missions for quite a while, and he brings to them not only his stature and prestige but an accumulation of techniques and attitudes developed by hard, and sometimes negative, experience. He explained some of them in an interview in the New York Times magazine with Jim Wooten, an American journalist who had written his biography.

For one thing, he isn't afraid of failure. This was critical in Pale, where he made clear to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that he would just walk away empty-handed if minimum terms weren't accepted. He had no personal stake in the appearance of success. Further, he was aware that Karadzic had already lied to him, as so often to others. That encounter had begun when a delegation of American Serbs called on him in his home town of Plains, Georgia, with an invitation from Karadzic to take part in peace efforts. "I knew he wanted to use me," Carter told Wooten, "so I told them I'd consider it only if the Serbs would agree to a cease-fire."

Doing the right thing

Word came back that Karadzic would go much further. He would end the war, free all UN hostages, reopen Sarajevo airport, allow free movement for peace-keepers, release all Muslim prisoners under nineteen, respect human rights, and accept a cease-fire in Sarajevo before Carter's arrival. None of that happened by the time he got to Bosnia, shortly before Christmas, as many had warned Carter to expect. He wasn't optimistic, but he went to Karadzic's headquarters at Pale with his proposals nonetheless.

There, he took care to observe another of his negotiating precepts. No recriminations, suspension of judgment, allowing enough time for interlocutors "to understand that there's nothing on the table except a mutual effort to reach some sort of agreement. Of course, there has to be a table. People in conflict have to be willing to talk about ending it, or at least changing it, and there has to be someone willing to talk to them, however odious they are and that's where I come in."

Carter is a deeply religious man, a "born again Christian", which means an adult rededication to the ideals and principles of his faith. It has brought a rectitude and austerity to his own behaviour and a confidence that he knows precisely what is right that can seem chilling at a distance. But he can also muster a tolerance and indulgence for others, whatever despicable things they've done, that give him an apparent belief that no one is beyond redemption, everyone should be given the chance to be humane and resolve conflict.

His words of kindness and sympathy for the Haitian leaders who had such a murderous record shocked many. But he thought it worthwhile and wasn't ashamed to tell what he called "a little white lie" about President Clinton's acceptance of the Haitian pseudo-President's signature on their departure agreement if that's what it took to get them out of the way without war. He isn't interested in retribution, but in solutions. He's after getting something done, and he is remarkably resistant to personal attack. Nothing said about him seems to irritate him more than the suggestion that his motivation is personal enchancement, that his goal is the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I do what I do because I think it's the right thing to do," he told Wooten. "Most of the time, believe it or not, I enjoy myself. Sometimes I even have fun doing my duty. Imagine that," he said with a chuckle.

All recent American presidents have set up libraries and sometimes foundations, but unlike the others which are essentially devoted to history, the Carter Center at Emory University and the adjoining Carter Library, in Atlanta, are action-oriented. They run lots of conferences, the modern version of monastic conviviality, but also a surprising variety of programmes that deal with regional problems, health scourges, agricultural innovation, human rights and, of course, conflict resolution.

Carter has established a Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, which sends teams to monitor elections in Latin America and has on occasion made the difference between rigged and reasonably honest votes that actually brought a democratic transfer of power. Nicaragua and Guyana are examples. He has been personally involved in peace negotiations in Liberia, between Ethiopia and the Eritrean rebels, and in Sudan. Sometimes there is a long preparation, many trips establishing personal contacts, before he gets results. Sometimes there are no results. He shows no discouragement, as he shows no triumphalism when he succeeds.

Force of conviction

There are aspects to his personality that were abrasive and hurt him with the American public when he was in office. He ran against Washington, as an outsider, one of the folks, and it got him elected. To prove he hadn't become pompous and self-inflated, he was photographed carrying his own suitcase on official trips, even revealing anguished exhaustion while jogging.

Many Americans weren't comfortable with that much show of being "just like us"; they weren't sure they wanted that un-presidential looking a president. His toothy smile was taut, and he spoke earnestly of national "malaise," put in sharp contrast by his successor Bonald Beagan, who always assured Americans they were "Number One" in the world and looked relaxed and cheerful whatever happened. It may be a flaw of human nature, but it shouldn't be surprising that people found Dr. Feel-good more appealing than Dr. Do-right.

Even Carter's name somehow set him apart, instead of giving him the aura of friendly familiarity he seemed to suppose. His proper name is James Earl Carter, Jr., and when he became president many thought it unseemly to call him by the nickname Jimmy. But he had grown up and governed Georgia as Jimmy, and he insisted that he hadn't changed and neither should the name he went by.

To look at, he is a medium sort of man, neither large nor small, overwhelming nor reclusive, impressive nor indistinguishable, not the type that immediately draws the eye of strangers. His force lies not in personality but in conviction. He eschews florid rhetoric and sets himself clear and narrowly defined objectives, wiping out the plague of guinea worm in Africa, getting a cease-fire in Bosnia. He wants to change the world, but accepts that it can best be done in specific, modest steps, and his persistence in pressing them is relentless.

No doubt historians will give his presidency better marks than did his contemporaries. His contributions to America's relations with the world were lasting: the Panama Canal treaty, the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the nuclear arms reduction treaty with the U.S.S.R., establishment of diplomatic relations with China, and perhaps most important of all and undoubtedly of great personal satisfaction to him, the establishment of human rights as a functional, significant part of the international agenda. The Helsinki accords, which made the way a government treats its own citizens a legitimate international concern and not an exclusive sovereign matter, were signed by his predecessor, Gerald Ford. But it was Jimmy Carter who gave substance to the paper promises.

An itinerant private citizen

Somehow, it has turned out that the 39th president of the United States has won more affection and admiration as an itinerant private citizen, sticking his nose into other people's quarrels, than he did as the head of a super-power. At a time when U.S. involvement in the world seems to be shrinking and others worry more about the country's indifference than what they used to consider a will to dominate, Jimmy Carter's almost ubiquitous efforts have a special value. He admits he shares the common human pleasure at being appreciated, but he isn't much moved by criticism or reward because he has his own sense of fulfilment in doing.

When interviewer Wooten insisted that he must really want the Nobel peace prize, saying, "But you wouldn't reject it, would you? I mean, you'd like to be chosen, right?" Carter replied, "Of course, but I'm telling you that isn't what this is all about. Doesn't even come close. My goodness, what if it were? What if the Nobel were the be-all and end-all of my existence? And what if it never happened? . . . Well, what sort of driedup, shriveled-up, disappointed old prune of a man would I be then?"

That he isn't. He is still running to see to the things he sees a need to do. And then he goes home, to his modest house in Plains, Georgia, a modest country town, and walks the land that gives his sense of place and permanence. It is a 2,000-acre spread, some of it in the family for 150 years, and on parts of it he farms the lowly peanut. Nothing grandiose, but his earth, his feeling of having a purpose and serving it to his utmost capacity.


Flora Lewis

A noted American journalist specializing in foreign affairs, Flora Lewis is the author of several books, including Europe: Road to Unity (1992).